Take a moment and think about what being “stoic” means to you. Many of us imagine hardened, emotionless people who face the world without expressing themselves, their emotions, or their complaints. But, did you know that stoicism, which has been around for centuries, has principles that we can implement into our lives to improve our health?
Stoicism advocates for being calm in adversity, which, after the last couple of years, is something all of us could probably strive for. The Hellenistic philosophy originated in the third century BCE and grew in popularity throughout the Roman Empire. Nowadays, stoicism can be viewed as an essential tool for personal wellbeing offering a plethora of mental benefits, from decreasing obsessive thinking, anxiety, and stress, while simultaneously strengthening resilience, self-efficacy, and promoting emotion regulation.
Far from being the “anti-emotion” philosophy, stoicism is actually considered the philosophical foundation for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Like stoicism, CBT views thinking patterns as the trigger and the remedy for our emotions.
Stoicism can benefit both our work and personal lives! Highly stressful environments such as public safety settings have incorporated stoic principles to help their employees (e.g. dispatchers, police officers, firefighters, and paramedics) cope with the stressors of the workplace. They encourage being stoic (disconnected) in the workplace, leading to improved decision-making in critical and stressful events, then reconnecting with their holistic-self when switching to their personal lives to process their emotions. The practices are additionally supported for physicians who are encouraged to maintain a balance between their stoic sense of duty and taking care of themselves, to prevent depression and even suicide. Stoicism can as well be embodied to help relieve the effects of burnout. On top of all of that, it has been found that implementing a holistic stoic framework in social education can encourage sustainable development, and form a motivation for the public to tackle socio-environmental issues, such as climate change and environmental degradation!
Stoicism: More Than What You Think
Now that we’ve seen the benefits of stoicism, what exactly is it? Contrary to the common misconceptions of stoicism focusing on apathy, a lack of emotions, and dysfunction, the actual goals of stoicism include fulfillment and happiness (eudaimonia) through overcoming intrusive and extreme emotions and thoughts (apatheia). Understanding the main principles can help us implement them into our lives to improve our mental health.
“Waste no more time arguing what a good person should be. Be one.” – Marcus Aurelius
When we face bad or stressful situations, it can be tempting to blame an external force.
- ”I didn’t get the job because the rain ruined my hair before the interview.”
- ”The traffic jam made me miss out on that important meeting, and I missed a chance for a promotion.”
- ”I can’t travel because of the bad economy – I don’t have enough money.”
While things such as the weather or the economy are out of our control, there are things we can control: our thoughts and how we react to them through our behaviors. This is the main focus of stoic mindfulness: center our attention on the factors we can control and detach ourselves from the factors we cannot control. In other words, we don’t let those uncontrollable episodes consume our emotional energy. Instead, we channel that energy into ourselves and our actions as a response to the situation.
Envisage Events in Advance
“Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.” – Seneca
Hopefully, envisioning an impending shipwreck won’t be something that we’ll need to do anytime soon. But what if we envisioned the things that could go wrong – and right – in our lives, and mentally practice responding to them?
This psychological technique, introduced by Seneca, is one of the keystones of stoicism. The fancy term for this is “premeditatio malorum – premeditation of the evils”, which in this case means imagining adversity or challenges we may face. With this practice, we become more prepared for unexpected hardships because we have trained ourselves to visualize the worst that could happen.
Here’s How We Can Practice Premeditation:
- Close your eyes. Be entirely focused on your breath. Inhale. Exhale.
- Visualize. Try to immerse yourself in your current or upcoming situation to make it as realistic as possible. Then visualize potential hardships and the worst possible scenario that could emerge. Engage all of your senses. What do you see, hear, feel, taste, and touch?
- Acknowledge the emotions you are feeling. Identify, name, and recognize the gut emotions that you’re experiencing at this moment – but don’t judge them.
- Acceptance. Whatever you visualize, accept it as it is. Try not to resist it by changing the situation into a good one or ignoring the emotions that come with it. Instead, you could rehearse your response to such events.
- Realization and thankfulness: Recognize, and be thankful, that this situation is not actually happening. Be thankful that you took the time to train your brain and prepare for future situations. Realize you can’t get hurt unless you let it get to you and that nothing lasts forever.
Stoic Acceptance of Fate
“Amor Fati — ‘Love your fate’, which is in fact your life.” – Friedrich Nietzche
When confronted with unexpected events, we might feel taken aback at first, but it’s human nature to fight. We do it all the time – it’s one of our primary survival mechanisms. Sometimes, fighting can be good: these survival instincts can save our lives. But sometimes, this instinct can cause us more pain and trouble – and this is where stoicism saves the day, yet again!
Another pillar of stoicism is embracing our fate in whatever form it comes. This entails accepting anything that comes our way, whether it’s good or bad. This doesn’t mean that something necessarily needs to happen for a greater purpose. Rather, it’s about focusing on the fact that once something has happened, we reframe it as a blessing to strengthen our self-esteem and sense of belonging.
Accepting our fate isn’t easy. Loving it definitely isn’t. Just think of how much less pain and suffering there would be if we didn’t dwell on the past! Practicing the stoic acceptance of fate will help us, in time, be more grounded in reality. Implementing this into our lives takes practice. The first step is accepting the situation – the second step is approaching it with a positive attitude. Channeling our attention to the positive outcomes before, during, and even after a misfortunate situation reinforces emotional recovery, especially after experiencing and accepting in a non-judgemental way, the emotional distress that emerged from this situation.
Let’s take a rainy day for example. Instead of being grumpy about the weather, which we have absolutely no control over, try premeditating (envisioning what could go wrong), preparing by taking an umbrella, and finding joy in the rain, instead of sorrow.
Journaling, But Stoically
“I will keep constant watch over myself and – most usefully – will put each day up for a review. For this is what makes us evil—that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past.” – Seneca
We already know that the contemporary form of journaling provides a plethora of benefits for the writer. However, people who practice stoicism aim to bring this practice into their philosophy.
Meditations by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is perhaps the most renowned reference of embodying a philosophy through a journal practice. His journals provide us with his thoughts and reflections about what is in his power and what is not, which helped him bear the hardships of his life. Besides, journaling can help us align our life with nature, which entails considering three divisions: physics (responding to the laws of the universe), logic (learning to recognize reality from fiction) and ethics (applying the acquired knowledge throughout life).
Complaining VS Reflecting
Using journaling as a means of reflection can help us gain more clarity on the situations we find ourselves facing, which is more likely to enhance our positive outlook. Practicing premeditation and stoic acceptance of fate can help us nurture this mindset/habit.
Our Emotions Serve Us
Unlike the common belief that our emotions might cloud our judgment, we can try to conquer this notion by identifying whenever we’re thinking emotionally, so we’re able to stimulate the rational side of things, and boost our chances at long-term healing.
There are many ways to incorporate stoicism into journaling, but the most common versions are for the morning and the evening.
When we journal in the morning, we can try to envision a compass for thriving throughout the day. It requires reflecting on our previous day and flourishing with the knowledge that we’ve acquired from our lived experiences. Subsequently, we can set goals and anticipate prospective events in the day ahead.
If you’d like some assistance and inspiration to get started, here are few ideas that can be considered:
- Write down at least one positive thing that happened to you yesterday.
- Write down at least one unfortunate situation that could have been handled better, highlighting what was in your control and what wasn’t.
- List personalized strategies that could help you improve yourself and prevent the potential recurrence of previous adversities.
- List at least one thing that you’re grateful for.
- Predict what hardships might be coming your way in this present-day, along with possible strategies to face them.
- Set realistic goals that are within your control. You could also add “God willing” next to the goal that relies on external factors, so you acknowledge that it is not entirely your fault if you aren’t able to achieve it.
Evening journaling is meant for bringing awareness to how we acted and what thoughts emerged in our day, in a non-judgemental way. We can also utilize such questions:
- What bad habit did I correct today?
- In which ways am I better than I was before?
In addition to that, it is considered a way of getting all our emotions and thoughts off of our chest before shutting off. Similarly to morning journaling, it’s important to write down positive experiences and what we’re grateful for before going to bed, for improved sleep as well as reduced stress and anxiety.
The Virtues as Leverage for Enduring Stoic Practices
“If virtue promises happiness, prosperity, and peace, then progress in virtue is progress in each of these for to whatever point the perfection of anything brings us, progress is always an approach toward it.” – Epictetus
Virtue is like the north star guiding us on our paths through life. It leads us towards happiness by making us acknowledge the rationality in our life and that we are only in control of our thoughts, judgments, decisions and actions. This practice is not exclusive for stoicism, but also expressed in CBT, Catholic Faith, and Alcoholics Anonymous with these lines from the Serenity Prayer:
Common stoic virtues include temperance, wisdom, justice, and courage.
- Temperance or self-control refers to our ability to manage our desires and to take control of our actions.
- Wisdom is the ability to separate the things that are good for us from the things that are bad for us, which drives us to happiness.
- Justice involves receiving and giving what is deserved, and discusses our kind and fair exchange with individuals and the society.
- Courage, in stoic philosophy, entails the endurance of discomfort and harsh situations.
Incorporating Stoic Principles Into Our Lives
Practicing stoicism is about embodying the principles and utilizing them most of the time in our daily life. Tools such as journaling, meditating, or talking to a friend can help us reflect, practice, and implement these principles in our lives. It’s important to keep in mind that we are not required to be strict stoic philosophers to benefit from stoic ideas. We can start by differentiating the things we can control from the things we cannot (for example, the weather versus our mood about the weather). We can also practice dealing with difficult situations by anticipating and envisioning them in advance. Another example can be to work on accepting the events that happen in our lives and work towards reaching tranquility.